REVIEW

In To Cook a Bear, Mikael Niemi uses a classic murder mystery to evoke the Arctic Circle in the 19th century

  • To Cook a Bear, by Mikael Niemi. Maclehose Press, $32.99.

Historical fiction aims to transport readers to another time and place in their imagination, while writing historical fiction requires both research about people and events, and creativity to bring them alive.

Mikael Niemi uses a classic murder mystery to tell the story of the 19th century Swedish Lutheran revivalist Pastor, Lars Levi Laestadius and his struggle to end the ongoing misery of poverty and alcoholism in Norrland, in the Arctic Circle.

A harsh landscape where "the sky is cold over the land of the north, the empty curve of a giant eyeball".

Laestadius was not only a charismatic pastor, but also an essayist in the fields of botany, philosophy, theology and Sami mythology.

Many of his letters and articles have survived, including his autobiography, The Voice of One Crying in the Wilderness: a wealth of source material for a historical novelist.

Niemi sets his novel in Kengis and Pajala, near the Swedish/Finnish border in 1852. Niemi was born in Pajala and still lives there. For him, this is local history.

In To Cook a Bear, Laestadius is under pressure from powerful local merchants, who resent his mission to stamp out the consumption of alcohol.

His faithful disciple, Jussi, a Sami boy rescued from destitution, who narrates most of the novel, knows Laestadius's "enemies are drawing ever nearer, not a day goes by without more attacks and more contempt. And the only thing he has in his defence is a pen."

Laestadius takes solace in "treks" into the forest, engaging Jussi in philosophical topics, while studying plant life.

He uses his knowledge of plants when a milkmaid goes missing in the forest and is later found dead.

Laestadius concludes she had been attacked in a nearby barn before being strangled.

However, the local inept, bullying Sheriff Brahe insists she had been attacked by a bear.

Despite a bear being trapped and killed, another girl is attacked, while a visiting artist dies in a traditional locked room murder.

Laestadius's methods and powers of observation equal those of Sherlock Holmes and Jussi becomes his Watson, taking down the evidence and recording events.

Eventually suspicion falls on Jussi, the Sami outsider and the novel takes a darker turn as Jussi's voice is silenced, to be replaced by Laestadius enraged at the injustice and determined to track down the killer.

In To Cook a Bear, Niemi cleverly combines philosophy and religious fervor with a crime novel, while bringing the past to life. It is a remarkable achievement.

This story Philosophy and dark crime in the Arctic Circle first appeared on The Canberra Times.